The Edge of…Something

Last week I wrote about my at times overzealous affection for the novels of Thomas Pynchon. As promised, here is a bit about his latest effort, Bleeding Edge, which came out this Tuesday, September 17. In much the same vein as 2009’s Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge is a period piece set around a uniquely Pynchonian detective story. The action takes place in 2001 in New York City, just after the dotcom crash and on through the attacks of September 11. As I said in my last piece about Pynchon, this is his first novel to take place in the Big Apple since he debuted in 1963 with V. (though V. was also set in a wide variety of other locations, while Edge remains pretty firmly in Manhattan and its surrounding environs).

The novel follows ex-Certified Fraud Examiner Maxine Turnow through her investigation of potential fraud in the finances of one of the few surviving tech outfits along NYC’s Silicon Alley. Soon though, the investigation begins to take on a much larger and more sinister aspect as it pulls in Russian mafia elements, money laundered overseas to accounts irreputable, and anonymous government agencies with suspicious intent. The story itself is, much like Inherent Vice, surprisingly entertaining for Pynchon (go pick up his magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow if you want to see why that’s so surprising). Personally, I enjoyed the myriad pop culture references which, unlike those in his previous novels, came from an era I actually lived in. From Pokemon cards to Metal Gear Solid to Friends and yes even Beast Wars, Pynchon runs the gamut of early millennial pop while still crafting a fairly high concept narrative. At times the allusions can seem a bit awkward in my opinion, but that may just be youthful skepticism that a seventy-six year old novelist really grasps how good Final Fantasy X looked back when it came out in 2001.

The novel is more than a Chandler-esque romp through Manhattan in the wake of the turn of the millennium though. It is an examination of the emerging phenomenon of that time: the internet.  The internet is the perfect subject for someone like Pynchon. Born from nuclear defense networks and second-handed down to the civilian world, it offers the contradictory potentials for absolute freedom or absolute control. To what degree is the internet a means for liberation and free information and to what degree is it a means for monitoring and manipulation? In Pynchon’s hands, the hacker-ridden Deep Web takes on the mythological potential of Ginnungagap as the unshaped and undefined void, an escape from the real world’s necessity for categorization and commoditization. For Pynchon, the internet serves as analogue for both America and humanity as a whole. The digital creation of two of his characters, a program that immediately forgets where it has been, living only the in the moment and being continuously augmented by users, is a self-contained world unbound by its history, free to define itself. The question then becomes to what degree can a creation like this exist outside the pressure to buy and sell, or be bought and sold?

Given the timeframe the novel is set in, it is inevitable that Pynchon would deal with the attacks of September 11. It is tough to approach these types of topics in the public discourse, but Pynchon does a pretty good job. He eschews the possibility of over-indulgence in imagery and description of the events themselves, opting instead to try and capture the emotional atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and anger which immediately followed them. At the same time, Pynchon refuses to pull any punches when talking about the events in a grander context. You won’t see it coming, but keep an eye on that surfer guru. He delivers one of the best lines in the novel, so far as I’m concerned, and it doesn’t shy away to protect feelings.

As usual, Pynchon refuses to draw conclusions or tell you what to think. The novel ends the way these things tend to, without clear resolution or victory and defeat. If you want closure and classic denouement, this is not the novel for you. But Pynchon presents you with an interesting idea in doing so: the possibility that you don’t necessarily need justice or closure or classic narrative structure to be satisfied. And satisfied is how I felt finishing Bleeding Edge. If I’ve managed to pique your interest in Pynchon throughout all of this, then I highly recommend checking this novel out. If I haven’t, then you should still check it out. It’s quite good. Just beware the puns. He really, really loves the puns in this one.

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